Magazine article Information Today

Can You Keep a Secret?

Magazine article Information Today

Can You Keep a Secret?

Article excerpt

I always thought that, symbolically, we made too much of the Berlin Wall, both going up and coming down. It was what it was. A fence, wall, barrier, enclosure, corral. It was obviously meant to shield and protect what was taking place within the Soviet occupied sector. The purpose of the wall, like the fences of our neighbors, was clear. While the construction of the wall was a sign of social failure, the real point was what was occurring inside government office buildings. While we viewed the wall as sinister, what was being stored inside the filing cabinets of the East German government in the Soviet sector was a lot more frightening.

The removal of the wall was an aesthetic pleasure. But the deeper joy came from the release of documents, the end of surveillance, the opened secrets.

Need an Espionage Photo?

Russia is now engaged in a yard sale of fighter jets, submarines, and nuclear bomb fuel. It is also selling espionage photos taken from space of such familiar Washington landmarks as the Pentagon, Capitol, and White House. The only interest in these tourist attractions would be that they were taken using high resolution space cameras. The Kremlin could have easily satisfied itself with some low cost picture postcard solutions.

The Soviet spy photos are marketed by Central Trading systems of Arlington, Texas and sell for $3,180 apiece, including shipping and handling. The photographs are sent from Moscow via Federal Express.

The collapse of Soviet espionage activity has also had repercussions in the U.S. President Clinton recently directed that millions of secret government documents, some going back to World War I, be declassified. The presidential directive ordered a review of Cold War rules on secrecy with the goal of opening our secret archives and reducing our number of classified military and intelligence programs. New rules on national security secrets are to be drafted by the end of this year.

"It is time," said Clinton, "to re-evaluate the onerous and costly system of security which has led to the over-classification of documents." If fully carried out, the presidential directive would lead to the release of millions of secret military and diplomatic records from the Cold War era. The National Archives, which estimates it has 325 million pages of classified documents in storage, is only one of about 80,000 government depositories that stores classified material.

Most official secrets are created by the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, and the White House, which together produced almost six million classified documents in 1992. The Information Security Oversight Office, which administers the classification system, is not even certain how many classified documents exist.

The difficulty with the present system of classifying documents is that they can only be declassified by the agency that originally assigned them "secret" status. Keeping documents classified is a useful way of perpetually covering agency mistakes and embarrassments.

Applause and Criticism

Having drawn applause for its interest in declassifying government documents, many of them surely without any historic interest whatsoever, the Clinton administration has provoked criticism with its plan to secure the privacy of the nation's phone calls and computer data with a standard set of computer codes designed by scientists from the National Security Agency (NSA).

The NSA has designed a coding system intended to protect the privacy of telephone and computer communications. The technology would be sealed into a tamper-proof microcircuit called a Clipper Chip. Decoding would only be possible through the simultaneous use of two decoding keys kept by two separate public organizations.

The system is designed by NSA in such a way that the tamper-proof computer chips could not be opened without being instantly destroyed. Individuals and corporations that use the encoding technique to protect the privacy of their wireless telephone calls or the transmission of computer files are concerned that there is no assurance that the system will be secure enough to prevent hackers from unscrambling messages. …

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